Blues Saraceno’s Plaid was the first album to get me thinking about tone. For instrumental guitar heroes of the time, tone took a backseat to dramatic melody and technical demonstration; artists were often happy with a fizzy, saturated, dynamically uninteresting sound if it provided enough gain and sustain to convey their ideas. Here came Saraceno in 1992, not just rebooting the weary blues scale into something fresh that a million new statements could be made from, but with a huge, rounded, engrossing tone that made me sit forward and pay attention like I’d just seen my house on the TV news. A fat, living, sculpted sound that made each note interesting, each phrase authoritative. No wonder Blues later based a line of signature guitars on popsicles: here was a tone so tart and juicy it drew your cheeks in like lime.
Plaid also provided my first encounter with the unobtainable tone grail. At that age I thought people just played equipment that you could go into town and buy. Ibanez guitars, Marshall amps, DiMarzio pickups, D’Addario strings, it was all there, behind glass. I had some of it already. So I figured I’d find out who made Saraceno’s amp, get one, and be on my way to sounding fantastic. And who made it?
Though Alex Saraceno would much later work with Mojave to produce a version of his quintuple transformer Dirty Boy amplifier that you could, just about, if you had a lot of money and patience, acquire, even that wasn’t the same as the originals built on the Saraceno kitchen table, which Mojave only goes as far as to say provided “the inspiration for” its new Dirty Boy. Blues’s idea of good tone has certainly changed, as a raft of YouTube demos for $500 fuzz pedals ably portrays.
So what can you buy for a slice of the man’s early 90s tone pinnacle? You can buy his signature Seymour Duncan pickup.
How warm is too warm?
“Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it,” summed up my first interaction with the PATB-3, installed in the bridge of my Charvel San Dimas. Though I have to admit the pickup sounded surprisingly like the records, what this meant in my hands differed from how I’d imagined it in my head. Namely: absent attack. It’s so warm that pick attack is smoothed over and folded into the note. Sure enough, going back to listen to Plaid with new ears, again and again that sound is heard: strong, thick mids, juicy as a rare steak, grabbing your attention; you don’t notice the treble is well rounded off until you look for it.
The PATB-3 is built for melody. It adds muscle and weight to overdriven guitar lines; girth. I tend to think of the bridge position as being for rhythm, with an open, detailed crunch, and the neck for adding some ‘sing’ to leads. This humbucker is a bit flabby on high gain rhythm, though, without much edge or bite, owing to that warmed up treble.
My first reaction was to reach down and check the tone pot was up full, in that absent-minded way you do when it sounds like it’s been nudged down to 8 or 9 by mistake. The Charvel doesn’t even have a tone control. With just a single 500k volume pot, in fact, it has a bright circuit, yet I found myself switching to the neck, a stock ’59, for clarity, which is bass ackwards!
I put the guitar away for a while and went back to other toys like my Alnico II Pro-loaded Edwards and current favorite for bridge tone, a MusicMan Silhouette fitted with a Rio Grande BBQ.
The Bit Where I Get It
Returning after a week or so with fresh ears, rather than those burdened by hopes over how it’d sound and react, proved a better way to approach the pickup. Though very warm, I realized that it is not however muddy. Hit a complex chord and all notes ring out in a pleasant PAF way.
Actually, despite its strange modern appearance, the PATB-3 revealed itself to have much more in common, tonally, with a classic aged PAF than any overwound shred ’bucker. Blues is quoted on the Seymour Duncan website describing its sound as “notched” — meaning it’s like you took a multiband EQ and, somewhere about the middle, pegged a slider up high — which is true, and a great way to describe it, but it’s like you did that to a vintage PAF. (The SD marketing basically tells you this, of course, but I’d never absorbed that part until coming to write this article.)
Understanding this, latching onto this character, suddenly opened up the pickup to me. I played it differently, adjusting to pick in varied strengths and angles at different points along the strings, exploiting the dynamics of its moderate output, and it started speaking much more fluently in its fascinating honky voice.
We tend to judge new equipment by how it reacts to a bunch of old standards, riffs and patterns we’ve played for years, the reduced instruction set of go-tos we can remember when all else fails in a guitar store. Taken as such, the PATB-3 falls flat. It’s not interested in Guns ‘N’ Roses or Dokken or Van Halen. It makes sense that Blues dropped the pickup for his Poison stint, his white Valley Arts TV Twenty from that era discovered with Duncan’s blazing hot JB model, a cock rock classic, in the bridge slot (though what appeared to be a Seth Lover in the neck; clearly Saraceno has PAF love).
Nah, old standby stuff wasn’t cutting it. This model wants you to lay down a fat searing solo or attitude laced melody. It doesn’t go into chewy, vocal double-stops that you might be used to hitting for emphasis with trebly pickups. Big notes, heavy vibrato, that’s its diet, and it sounds great with bold single notes all over the fretboard, with a pleasant twang emerging from the distortion lending shape to each note. There’s even a bit of middle-position Tele to it as you get down the wound strings. It takes some learning, but it does the soapy Saraceno noise well.
The Parallel Axis series, of which the Blues Saraceno model is just one of three or four, is named for its distinctive rectangular pole pieces, 12 on each coil, a pair of which flank each string from either side in parallel, rather than directly beneath like conventional pole pieces. I’m sure in test conditions this gives a nice even magnetic field across the strings, but the truth is that there are a number of reasons why we like to adjust the height of our pole pieces — to match the curved distribution of strings from a bridge, say, or to deemphasize an overbearing string — and the Parallel Axis pickups do not allow this. Not ideal for tweakers. Its design then, like its tone, is unique and inflexible.
With its ground-off top end and outrageous ballooning midrange, the PATB-3 produces a grab-you-by-the-collar, get-noticed tone, like a saxophone through a wah pedal. Not much use for playing covers, but compelling for doing your own lead thing with meat and authority. As I see it, a delightful, usable flavor to have on call if you have several guitars, but unworkable for me were it my sole choice in a humbucker superstrat.
Blues has said that the pickup was designed to put the beef back in tremolo-routed guitars. As such it may work better in acoustically thin sounding models from, say, Ibanez. The rich, resonant alder-bodied Charvel has enough on the bone already yet, after an initial disappointment that it could not be a do-it-all rock/metal pickup while simultaneously doling out the signature honk of one of my tone idols, its peculiar personality won me over. There’s something valuably unique here that I can see myself reaching for time after time; it’s just not gonna be yer 9-to-5 ’bucker.
Bearing in mind that I can’t play like Blues Saraceno, or even like Blues Saraceno drunk, I can manage a few ditties familiar from, or at least reminiscent of, the great man’s style. I shall soon place them here in what is bound to be an unpopular, niche YouTube video, with the usual caveats concerning my lazy personality delaying this indefinitely of course. Update 2.2.11: And here it is! Some amp tweaking along with mic’ing the speaker close to the center has introduced a respectable amount of treble, and I’m keen on the tone here. For my money it sounds best when I switch from the Plexi circuit of the Splawn amp (1st Gear to Splawners) to the 800 circuit (2nd Gear) at around 1:15 in the video.